Binding means a variety of methods that a person can use to flatten their breast tissue. Usually, this means wearing an undergarment called a binder. Binding involves risk of permanent change to the breasts, and injury to other parts of the body, so this article will focus on how to mitigate those risks.
Binding is practiced by many kinds of people: transgender men who haven't had top surgery (meaning bilateral mastectomy, in this case called FTM chest reconstruction), cisgender men with breasts (gynecomastia), drag kings (performing artists who do a male impersonation act), transgender women in situations where they need to look male (such as early in transition, with people they haven't come out to yet), and some nonbinary people who want an androgynous look. Because this is a temporary effect, some transgender and gender non-conforming people either bind their breasts or wear breast prostheses at different times. This is one solution for genderfluid people who wouldn't be satisfied with the permanence of surgery or hormone therapy.
How not to bind
Content warning for this section: injury, infection.
First of all, here's the horror-story cautionary tale part, and it's gross, so brace yourself. Most home-made binding methods can cause serious injury! You might hear about people who bind with duct tape, ACE bandage, saran wrap, or layering bras in complicated ways, but don't try it. Those can cause fainting, break ribs, injure lungs, cause skin infections, scarring, or death. They can need surgery to repair scarring or other damage. Home-made binding methods might bind so much tighter than is reasonable that they cut off circulation and cause tissue death.
The risks of some makeshift methods of binding:
- Duct tape can rip big pieces of your skin right off, a few layers deep. That can do very bad things to nipples in particular. In some cases, the skin gouges need surgery to close up, and/or cosmetic surgery to hide the scars later. If you Google for "gynecomastia surgery," you'll find a lot of before-and-after photos of cisgender men with these types of scars. It's common for cisgender men to try to hide any breast growth (gynecomastia) with duct tape on a regular basis, not realizing how bad it can be to apply duct tape to skin. Cameron Tuttle's Bad Girl's Guide nonfiction book series unwisely advises women to use duct tape on their breasts as a makeshift push-up bra. Several resources for drag kings saying that they can use duct tape to pull their breasts out to the sides, so that they can show an area of masculine-looking bare chest in the middle. Any look you can achieve by this method is not worth the risk! In addition to the risk of ripping out chunks of your flesh, duct tape also doesn't let skin breathe, so it carries a risk of causing skin infections.
- ACE bandage constricts your ribs tighter and tighter with each breath, until it can break bone. This happens because ACE bandage is designed to compress swelling, and to tighten when moved, instead of loosening. Films, artwork, and documentaries that show people binding their breasts almost always show them using bandages. Although bandages are-- now and historically-- the most common method of binding, they are also the least safe way to bind breasts. Broken ribs can't be put in a cast to help them heal, so they will just hurt every time you breathe for months. There's also a risk that broken ribs can perforate lungs, which is deadly.
- Saran wrap (plastic cling film) doesn't breathe, so it makes a hot wet environment for bacteria. A few resources for drag kings talk about using this method, but none recommend it. It doesn't seem to have any bonuses that outweigh the discomfort and risks.
The above binding methods may sound inexpensive enough to experiment with, but don't be fooled, because emergency room trips are not cheap! A lot of these kinds of injuries need surgery to fix, if they can be fixed at all. A commercial binder costs about USD$30 to USD$60, whereas messing with unsafe binding methods could cost you for the rest of your life. If money is really an issue for you, see the section at the end of this page about how to get a binder for free.
If you even want to experiment with binding, you've got to buy a breast binder that's actually designed to be a breast binder. People have gotten hurt from commercial binders (generally rib injuries, not the skin and tissue problems), so you've got to be careful about safety with them anyway, but commercial binders are still much safer.
Choosing a binder to buy
There are a lot of varieties of commercial binders, but nearly all of them are for people who have breasts that are a B cup size or smaller. A lot of them don't do much different than a compression sports bra. (For people who have B cup size or smaller breasts, a compression sports bra can work as good as a binder for creating a chest that just looks like pectoral muscles. Compression sports bras are better for your body than any binder, especially when exercising. Some trans men use those bras at the gym.)
For people who have breasts that are about C cup size or larger, there's really only a few binders. Which also happen to work great for people with smaller breasts. It's just that these are the best binders that actually work as binders! (A lot of the binders that only work for small breasts are like that just because they're poor binders that don't have any binding power.) Here's a list of the binders that consistently get the best reviews. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages:
The "Tri-Top style 983," by Underworks. http://www.ftm.underworks.com/ Shaped like a cropped tank-top, with a breathable mesh back, with a heavy-duty front that feels like it's made out of the same stuff as a trampoline. It doesn't have any fasteners. You put it on by stepping into it, and pulling it up. Putting it on over your head requires a lot of agility in your arms, which can get tangled in it, but some people who are wider in the lower part of their body find that this is easier. Either way, try practicing by putting on a normal tank top over and over, thinking carefully about how you're moving your body to do it. Think of putting on the binder as like putting on an amazingly intractable tank top. It's very, very difficult to put this binder on over your head when the binder hasn't been broken in yet. After it's been broken in, and after you've had some practice, you can get so that you can put it on as quickly as a bra.
- Tri-top pros: it's symmetrical, which means it's better for your ribs, and you can get both breasts looking symmetrical. The stretchy material means that you can draw a full breath, it's just that you have to work at it a little harder. It holds your breasts in exactly the same place all day long, no matter how you move around. The mesh material breathes much better than the other binders described here, so you don't get too hot.
- Cons: The tank-top shape means that you have to choose shirts that cover the whole thing, and if the tri-top shows through your clothes, it can look sort of like a bra. It can be very difficult and slow to get into and out of a pull-over binder, sort of like how it is when one changes out of a pair of overalls. This binder's texture against your skin is coarse. If this binder gets wet, it will get very difficult to take the binder off, since it's a pull-over, so don't wear it on a day when you expect to get soaked with sweat. If you need to take this binder off in a hurry, like if you're having trouble breathing, the best emergency quick fix is to just roll it down around your waist, hips, or thighs, and leave it there like a belt, instead of trying to take it all the way off.
The "extreme chest concealer style 988," by Underworks (at the same link as above), is another version of the tri-top described above, with a small change: it's longer, so you can tuck it in to your waistband. Some people have trouble with the tri-top rolling up, so they prefer to get the long one and tuck it in so it can't roll up. The tri-top has been re-designed a little bit (with a flared lower edge) so that it's less likely to roll up, though. The tri-top would have to be the more comfortable of the two, because it doesn't constrict around your tummy at all, so you can breathe more freely. Some people save money by buying the tri-top style 983 instead, and then sewing some extra fabric onto the end, so that it can tuck in like this long 988 binder can. That's cheaper, if you've got the sewing skills and supplies.
"2nd Gen. Jersey Mesh Short Binder," by LesLoveBoat. http://www.lesloveboat.com/shop/product_info.php?products_id=255 It has Velcro closure on the left side, a racer back, and soft fabric lining.
- Pros: The soft fabric lining is more comfortable on one's skin. The Velcro closure makes it easy to remove the binder in a hurry, even for just a quick break in a bathroom stall. This is the right binder for wearing if you expect to sweat a lot that day. People who sometimes have breathing problems-- asthma, panic attacks, or just a case of the sniffles-- are safer in a Velcro binder. Just one quick tug, and you're free from the binding instantly! This binder isn't made of stretchy material, so you can expand your ribs up to a certain point, and no farther, unyielding. The racer back (like what some sports bras have) is much easier to hide under short-sleeve or sleeveless shirts, although it can still look like a bra if it shows at all. The racer back also gives you complete freedom of movement in your shoulders.
- Cons: The Velcro closure down the left side of your ribs makes it so this binder is asymmetrical. That means that your left breast gets compressed much more firmly, whereas your right breast might not look compressed at all, if you don't have it positioned quite right. The assymmetrical pressure-- much firmer on the left than on the right-- is also bad for your ribs, so don't wear this binder all the time. The soft fabric insulates body heat and will make you feel much, much hotter than with the mesh Underworks binders. The Velcro closure has a hard, coarse texture that digs into your skin on that side, so you might have to wear an undershirt with it, which then kind of defeats the breathability of the fabric.
"Super Strength Velcro Short Binder," by LesLoveBoat. http://www.lesloveboat.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=78_80&products_id=122 This binder is exactly the same as the above Jerseybinder, except that this one doesn't have a racer back. The extra fabric makes it hotter, and may or may not have an effect on its binding power.
Safety tips and advice for wearing commercial binders
Again, even though commercial binders are safer, people have been injured by them.
- Buying the exact right size is important. Each kind of binder has its own sizing (even from the same company, in some cases), so make sure you follow the instructions for each one. If you're in between sizes, err on the side of buying the slightly larger size, which is less likely to hurt you than the smaller one.
- When you first buy a binder, it might be way tighter than when it's been broken in. If it feels too tight, but you're sure it's the right size for you, you might have to do some stuff to stretch it out. Sometimes people put the binder around their shins while they're sitting around, or around part of a chair, to stretch it out. You might also choose to take some of the liveliness out of the elastic by soaking the binder in cool water for a few minutes.
- Limit the time that you spend wearing them to about four hours straight, and then take a break. Four hours or eight hours.
- Right after you take a binder off, make sure you breathe well. Bend over, and give a couple hard coughs, to see if there's any fluid settled in your lungs that you need to loosen. Take some deep breaths, expanding your ribs as far as they go. Do stretches, head rolls, shoulder rolls, maybe a little yoga. If you know the first few movements of tai chi or qi gong, which are for loosening up your chest and back muscles so that you can breathe more freely, do those. (You do a few breaths where, on the exhale, you curl forward like a pill bug, and on the inhale, arch your back so your chest sticks out. Then curl forward and roll your shoulders a few times.) Touch around your ribs to see if there's any tenderness. If there is, take a break from binding. Coughing fluid up from your lungs is a serious reason to take a break from binding, too. If you have either of those problems, it's time to try out different binders. You should be able to find one that works for you without hurting you.
- Some binders are sold for wearing while doing sports, but you need to consider the risk of injury if you do that. Your ribs, back, and maybe shoulders are limited in their freedom of movement. Bending and twisting at the waist while wearing a binder seems like what's most likely to be a bad idea.
- If you wear a binder much, it causes the breast tissue to migrate into a different position. You can end up with very saggy breasts. Nobody has done a study on how quickly this happens. (Some bloggers suggest maybe a year, maybe several years, depending on how often you bind.) Nobody's clear on whether it's permanent. Some writings suggest that maybe it's not permanent, because some tutorials about proper bra fitting say that breast sag isn't permanent. Supposedly, once people get a properly fitted bra that supports your breasts perfectly, people find that their breast tissue migrates further into a healthy breast position. Their breasts become less saggy, and more shapely. It's just that what kind of undergarments you wear-- whether binder or bra-- can re-shape your breasts, because that kind of soft tissue can migrate around easily. That's just what breasts do, apparently. Maybe. Again, nobody's done a study on this, either. (Medical research has certain blind spots, and a lot of those blind spots are in the area of women's health and transgender health.) If you want to preserve your breast shape in the long term, the best strategy is to only wear your binder when you leave the house (or when you otherwise really need it so bad that you can't stand to do without it), and wear it infrequently. (That's also a wise idea for taking good care of your lungs and ribs.) You might choose to wear the binder no more often than every other day, or only during the daytime, and wear a very well-fitted supportive bra the rest of the time. More notes: Saggy breasts are easier to bind, since they're softer, but they're harder for surgeons to do breast-reductions on, because the skin has been stretched.
- If you expect to exert yourself, move around a lot, or sweat, protect yourself from chafing in your binder. Powder your skin with corn starch before wearing the binder. (Corn starch is better than talc, since talc is considered a carcinogen now.) And/or wear a very lightweight cotton undershirt under the binder.
- Some people talk about layering bras under a binder, or layering binders. This is likely unhealthy.
- You can swim in a binder, but you'd better wash it out really well afterward. Chlorine ruins stretchy material, and shortens the lifespan of the binder. Usually people use an old worn out binder that they don't mind wearing out some more, and wear a t-shirt or rash guard swim-top over it.
- If you try to put on or take off a pull-on kind of binder while it's wet, the fabric can cling to your skin, and you might get stuck in it for, say, fifteen minutes. You can unstick yourself by patting the binder dry with a towel. (A hair dryer might be a bad idea.) To prevent this problem, make sure you get completely dry from a shower before putting on a binder. If your binder tends to gets soaked with sweat or water while you're wearing it, consider wearing a Velcro binder for those jobs instead of a pull-on kind.
- A binder makes it so you can't breathe from your chest, and need to breathe from your belly instead. Control underwear that compresses your lower abdomen or hip area will make it so you can't breathe from your belly, and need to breathe from your chest instead. The two garments cannot be worn at the same time. You need to be able to breathe from somewhere!
- When you go out in public wearing a binder, bring an emergency plan B with you. Get a kind of very soft bra that doesn't have any metal, plastic, reinforcement, or other hard parts in it. A sleep bra or an "un-bra" would be ideal. Roll up this spare bra in a sandwich bag. Stash it in your backpack, or in the wonderful huge pockets that men's wear has, or in whatever kind of bag or locker you'll have at hand. Then, if you have a problem with your binder, such as finding that it's too painful for you, you have the option to dash into the restroom and change into the bra. This plan B isn't great for passing as male, but it is excellent for making sure you don't pass out because your new binder turned out to be too small. Even if you dislike wearing bras, a bra will still hide and control your breasts better than going entirely without a bra or binder.
Other notes about putting on binders
Binders don't have individual pockets for each breast, so you're free to position your breasts in there however you want. The way that you position your breast tissue in your binder makes a big difference in the kind of body-shape the binder makes for you. Put on the binder first, and then reach under it with your hands to move the breast tissue. Spend a bunch of time experimenting with that in front of a full length mirror. Here are some different positions to try:
- The most effective way to position your breasts to create a shape like a flat chest or masculine pecs is to push your breasts in the direction of your armpits, and slightly downward. You can do this most easily if you first put on the binder, and then lie down on your back, and use your hands to temporarily lift the binder away from your body. That should allow your breasts to naturally fall in the direction of your armpits. If you shop for binders other than those on this list, look at the catalog's picture. If a binder has really large arm holes that are open way down the side of the wearer's body, you can tell that binder is no good. With that design, when you try to press your breasts toward your armpits, your breasts will just bulge out of that binder's wide-open arm holes. That's no good for making a masculine or feminine chest shape. This design flaw is common in binders from Japanese and Korean companies. Instead, look for binders that have compression in the under-arm area, or at least have smaller arm-holes. If you have big arms and find that the arm-holes are too small for you, the ideal thing is to customize your binder by sewing.
- Positioning your breasts so they're pressed upward can make a slightly small but very high and very feminine bust. Binders are more versatile than they're given credit for, since they can also create a look sort of like a push-up bra or a bustier. You can do this more easily if you hang head downward from a bed or sofa, and momentarily lift the binder away from your body, so that your breasts will naturally fall closer to your collarbone.
- Positioning your breasts so they're pressed straight downward can create a flat chest at first, but it doesn't last for long at all. As you're moving around during the day, your breasts will very soon move into positions where they don't look like a flat chest. This position is also the most likely to make your breasts become droopy and saggy, which is bad for aforementioned reasons.
- It's possible to compress your breasts without moving them upward, downward, or any other direction than their natural location. You just sort of... squash them right in place, like collapsing a telescope. This may be easier to do while lying on your back. For breasts that are achy and swollen due to one's current hormone balance, this can be even much more comfortable than wearing a bra. Compression is good for reducing swelling! However, it might not create a flat or masculine looking chest. It might just look like a slightly smaller, slightly higher feminine bust. This might create stretch marks on the top side of the breast.
- Note that some people with large breasts may find that there is no way to position their breasts in a binder that truly creates a perfectly masculine contour. However, don't accept that to be the case until after you've experimented with lots of different breast positions, and tried different binders.
No matter what, you'll want to keep these in mind when positioning your breasts:
- You want to separate your breasts from each other, so they don't make one big boob in the middle. That is neither a masculine nor feminine contour. Unfortunately, that is exactly the direction that your breasts will try to go.
- You want to make sure they're positioned in a way that is perfectly symmetrical when viewed from any angle. Most people do have asymmetrical breasts and pecs, so a slight difference might not be worth worrying about, but a binder can make a look that is asymmetrical to the extreme.
- When rearranging your breast tissue, make sure that you don't feel like you're stretching the breast tissue. Make sure that you don't have any folds or creases in the skin, especially on or near the nipple. If any specific area of your breasts has a painful feeling while you're adjusting, don't leave it like that. Keep adjusting it until it's comfortable before you leave your bedroom.
Donations and second-hand or free binders
If you get a binder that turns out not to be your thing, or doesn't fit and can't be returned, or you're otherwise done with it, there are a bunch of non-profit organizations that you can donate the used binder to. They'll give it to trans people for free. Some of these programs only give binders to trans men, whereas others allow binders to be given to nonbinary and gender non-conforming people. For shipping cost reasons, some of these programs only ship to certain countries. These are some organizations that do free binder exchanges, in alphabetical order:
- Big Brother Used Binder Program. Donate used binders, and this group gives them to trans men for free. They require that you prove that you truly need a binder and can't afford one. Region: USA.
- Binder Boys has a monthly binder give-away program.
- Binders For Love. Gives new and used binders for free to trans people who can't afford one.
- FTM Garage Sale. A Livejournal blog/forum for trans men to sell their second-hand binders and other equipment.
- In A Bind. Donate new and used binders, and this group gives them to trans-masculine and genderqueer youth for free. In the USA only.
- MORF binder exchange. Region: UK.
- Pay-It-Forward Binder Program. Should only be used by people who otherwise can't afford a binder, not just trying to save money. Region: Australia and New Zealand.
- Replace the ACE. Donate binders, and this group gives them to trans men for free.
- Susan's Place Transgender Resources - Forum - FTM Gear. People often make posts on this forum about binders they have to sell or give away.
- Trans Circle, the.
- Trans Youth Equality Foundation binder drive. Donate used binders, and this group gives them confidentially to children between age 9 and 18 for free. Located in Maine, USA.